Ethnic Diversity and Social Capital at the Community Level: Effects and Implications for Policymakers

By Vilius Semenas
2014, Vol. 6 No. 04 | pg. 2/2 |

Recent Findings

It seems feasible to characterise, conforming to a recent study by Sturgis et al. (2013: 15), the ‘body of evidence as supporting the idea that ethnic heterogeneity is, albeit weakly, damaging to harmonious community life.’ Yet, considering the newest research on diversity, there have been two positive and promising findings, which are certainly worth looking at. First, a strong contingency of cohesion on age, or in this specific context age cohorts, has been discovered in the Canadian and British context. Sturgis et al. (2013: 16-17) claim that younger people, in general, tend to associate more diversity with cohesion, whereas older cohorts inversely relate it with less cohesion. By implication, younger people, having grown up in more diverse communities than their parents, ‘changed their ability to create numerous affective diverse social ties’ and became capable of seeing diversity as a ‘normal aspect of their lives’, which results in their being more tolerant, open-minded, social and trusting (Stolle & Harell, 2012: 60). This is certainly promising, especially if it holds true in further research in different contexts. In such case, over time, cultural appreciation and social cohesion would increase naturally.

Second, it has been determined that distinguishing ethnic diversity from segregation, and relating them to the aforementioned contact and conflict theories, produces vastly different outcomes of diversity on trust. Contact theory, to reiterate, proposes that diversity causes tolerance, solidarity and trust. However, ‘segregation reduces the probability of meaningful social contact between groups’, rather than diversity (Sturgis et al., 2013: 16). Yet a common perception is that that diversity, rather than segregation, causes negative effects on social capital. In reality, the effects of diversity could in fact be positive (or at least less negative), if segregation is controlled for. Although paradoxical and confusing, this argument seems to hold significant weight, and the vast majority of academic literature on this subject does not account for the difference between diversity and segregation. Consequently, they may actually find diversity to be negatively affecting trust (which they often do), which commonly is a by-product of conflating segregation with diversity.

At this point, the picture becomes clearer as to why conflict theories have achieved more success than contact theories, whereas the slightly negative effects of ethnic diversity on social capital, taking into account the two new findings, disappear, and may even reveal the true benefits of diversity. Conclusively, the implications of segregation are, indeed, far worse than those of diversity, thus, particularly the issue of segregation, not forgetting the perceptions of diversity within age cohorts, should be of utmost importance to policymakers.

Implications for Policymakers

Looking at the broader picture, the effects of ethnic diversity on social capital should have significant implications for policymakers. However, the evidence produced by scholars, as we have seen, is rather mixed and complicated. To make matters worse, it cannot be said with certainty, that social capital promotes better living conditions. Cheong et al. (2007: 42) concisely remind us that ‘more social capital [does] not necessarily lead to better outcomes and social cohesion’, and that the former is merely a component of the latter. It all comes down to the question, whether we believe social capital to be an essential resource which brings about a variety of positive outcomes; or is social capital merely a socially constructed concept, the benefits of which are actually by-products of parallel interdependent processes and factors, such as inequality, education, and ethnic diversity (Portes & Vickstrom, 2011: 476).

If we choose the former, and view diversity as a force undermining social capital and cohesion, then we need to reassess the factors which actually undermine social cohesion. It is noteworthy how the Report of Community Cohesion Panel recommend a multiplicity of improvements ‘in respect of culture (leisure, arts & sports), education, employment, faith, health & social care, housing, policing & community safety, political & community leadership, press & media, regeneration, voluntary organisations and youth’ (Community Cohesion Panel, 2004: 8-9). Such broad recommendations echo the ubiquity of the diversity-social capital relation in our lives, and, to some extent, show that these solutions are at the same time unlikely to make significant difference one by one. As suggested by many of the studies mentioned in this paper, ethnic diversity is not a stand-alone variable, but rather it is contextual and dependent upon inequality, poverty, and deprivation (Letki, 2008: 121). In order to improve cohesion, it is necessary, first and foremost, to invest in the reduction of the latter three.

Further, Cheong et al. (2007: 42) argue that ‘policy initiatives seem to be based on the belief that community cohesion can be built by imposing a ‘majority’ agenda on the ‘minority’ communities.’ However, contact, within and between groups, which we have observed to be beneficial, cannot be forced upon communities, neither majority nor minority. More importantly, quality and quantity of contact should not be confused, as denoted by Goodwin, and cross-cultural appreciation can only be achieved through quality contact, which moves beyond the initial acquaintance-making (2009: 101). Seeing how age affects perceptions, it should, thus, be a priority to encourage older cohorts to engage in active contact with ethnic minorities, as the younger generation are already far more trusting. Finally, and most importantly, if policymakers seek to achieve more cohesive societies in the short term, they need to focus on segregated communities, where contact is absent and trust minimal (Bolt, 2009).

On the other hand, if we choose to dismiss social capital, or view it as a by-product of other factors and processes, we must turn to the ‘higher form of cohesion associated with a complex division of labor and the strength of institutions’ (Portes & Vickstrom, 2011: 476). In this case, policymakers must then refrain from dealing with alleged effects of diversity, as well as from viewing new immigrants as harmful, and instead focus on how to establish immigration policy in a way which would incorporate newcomers smoothly and effectively.


This paper argues that social capital in communities is not necessarily eroded by ethnic diversity. Instead, the effects of ethnic diversity are mixed, and contingent on contextual variables, such as socio-economic backgrounds, historical factors in different countries, and the way that social capital is defined and measured. After defining the concept of social capital, this paper looked at Putnam’s (2007) main argument and at the work of scholars who confirm his ‘hunkering down’ hypothesis. Then, the limitations of Putnam’s research were examined using two criticisms as proposed by Sturgis et al. (2010) to emphasise the shortcomings of his analysis and to determine the overall variability of findings produced by the body of scholars on this subject. Further, this essay turned to examining the most recent findings by Sturgis et al. (2013), which again demonstrated the complexity of the subject, adding further importance to the distinction between diversity and segregation and the changeability of perceptions across age cohorts.


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Cheong, P. H., Edwards, R., Goulbourne, H., & Solomos, J., 2007. Immigration, social cohesion and social capital: A critical review. Critical Social Policy, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 24-49. Available from [Accessed 13 January 2014]

Community Cohesion Panel, 2004 July. The End of Parallel Lives? The Report of the Community Cohesion Panel. Institute of Community Cohesion. Available from [Accessed 13 January 2014]

Fieldhouse, E., & Cutts, D., 2010. Does diversity damage social capital? A comparative study of neighbourhood diversity and social capital in the US and Britain.Canadian Journal of Political Science,vol. 43, no. 2, pp. 289-318. Available from [Accessed 13 January 2014]

Gesthuizen, M., Van der Meer, T., & Scheepers, P., 2009. Ethnic diversity and social capital in Europe: tests of Putnam's thesis in European countries. Scandinavian Political Studies, vol. 32, no. 2, pp. 121-142. Available from [Accessed 13 January 2014]

Goodwin, M. J., 2009. Can we promote cohesion through contact? Intergroup contact and the development of community cohesion. In: Durose, C., Greasley, S., & Richardson, L., 2009. Changing local governance, changing citizens. Bristol, UK; Portland, OR: Policy Press.

Hooghe, M., Reeskens, T., Stolle, D., & Trappers, A., 2009. Ethnic Diversity and Generalized Trust in Europe A Cross-National Multilevel Study. Comparative Political Studies, vol. 42, no. 2, pp. 198-223. Available from [Accessed 13 January 2014]

Lancee, B., & Dronkers, J., 2008 May. Ethnic diversity in neighborhoods and individual trust of immigrants and natives: A replication of Putnam (2007) in a West-European country. International Conference on Theoretical Perspectives on Social cohesion and Social capital. Available from [Accessed 13 January 2014]

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Putnam, R. D., 2000. Bowling alone: the collapse and revival of American community. New York; London: Simon & Schuster.

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Schaeffer, M., 2013. Can competing diversity indices inform us about why ethnic diversity erodes social cohesion? A test of five diversity indices in Germany. Social science research, vol. 42, no. 3, pp. 755-774. Available from [Accessed 13 January 2014]

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Stolle, D., Soroka, S., & Johnston, R., 2008. When does diversity erode trust? Neighborhood diversity, interpersonal trust and the mediating effect of social interactions. Political Studies, vol. 56, no. 1, pp. 57-75. Available from [Accessed 13 January 2014]

Sturgis, P., Brunton-Smith, I., Read, S., & Allum, N., 2011. Does ethnic diversity erode trust? Putnam’s ‘hunkering down’ thesis reconsidered. British Journal of Political Science, vol. 41, no. 1, pp. 57-82. Available from [Accessed 13 January 2014]

Sturgis, P., Brunton-Smith, I., Kuha, J., & Jackson, J., 2013. Ethnic diversity, segregation and the social cohesion of neighbourhoods in London. Ethnic and Racial Studies, pp. 1-21. Available from [Accessed 13 January 2014]

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